Honey mushrooms grip the bark of a fir tree off the beaten path in Lynn Canyon
There's something satisfying about foraging for your food, particularly when the resulting treasure looks as interesting as these BC wild mushrooms
I’m on the hunt armed only with a camera and a year of lackluster Girl Guide training. I feel confident that this hunt will end well though, mostly because my prey are mushrooms, which rarely fight back.
There are about 30 of us gathered in the Lynn Canyon Headwaters in North Vancouver for Swallow Tail Tour’s mushroom walk. For the next three hours, we’ll be heading off the trail populated by families, dogs, and joggers and into the brush, eyes peeled for edible wild delicacies. Adventure – and inspiration for tonight’s dinner – await.
There are two types of deadly fungi lurking in Lynn Canyon Headwaters: Death Cap and Destroying Angel. Obviously, I didn’t eat either of these enticingly named treats. In fact, I didn’t eat any mushrooms at all on my foraging trip: BC Parks doesn’t want visitors gobbling up all its majestic beauty, and my sensais, Robin Kort and Alexander McNaughton of Swallow Tail Tours, advocate caution at all times. "When in doubt, throw it out!" they say over and over again during our hike. It rhymes, so it must be true.
Foraging in the Wild
Coral mushrooms in Lynn Canyon / IMAGE: Stacey MacLachlan
Kort and McNaughton have been foraging for food throughout BC for years and years, but they still play it safe. "There are probably only about 20 species that I feel 100% confident in identifying," says McNaughton, a lanky twentysomething in a scratchy sweater who spends most of the tour cheerily cutting up locally sourced apple slices.
Kort, a Vancouver-born chef and sommelier, founded Swallow Tail Tours; fresh-faced and raincoat-clad, she explained that trying a mystery mushroom for the first time should be a slow process. “Cook it, eat a small piece, and then wait four days to see how you feel,” she advises us. “The more you worry about how you’ll react, the more upset your stomach will be.”
Searching for Edible Treasure
Red belted conk mushroom / IMAGE: Stacey MacLachlan
Swallow Tail’s mushroom foraging trip feels like a treasure hunt as we wander among towering North Vancouver alders and Douglas Firs with our eyes glued to the ground. Every few minutes, someone in our group hollers and Kort magically appears at their side to identify a new fungal friend.
These brown ones with big round caps are Boletus: they're everywhere, they're edible, but not particularly exciting flavour-wise. Tiny white oyster mushrooms make their home on dead trees all over the place - wait a few months, Kort tells us, and when they're a little bigger, and you’ll have yourself a meal.
We hit the jackpot with a huge cluster of “honey mushrooms,” gripping to the bark of a fir tree with long, strong stems. There's a lot of jostling for macro photos. We're foragers now, after all.
I'm surprised – nay, delighted – at the shapes and sizes to be found in just this one patch of West Coast forest. Nature is amazing! Bright red miniatures burst from the ground while white, flat, rock-hard mushrooms protrude from the sides of trees – they're the Ikea LACK shelves of the woods. There are “coral” mushrooms everywhere, doing what I assume is an excellent impression of the Great Barrier Reef. Beautiful.
Boletus mushroom peeking through the leaves / IMAGE: Stacey MacLachlan
Tuckered out from clambering through roads less travelled (while there are 'shrooms all along the hiking trail, Kort suggests that the better specimens, less urinated on by passing dogs, lurk deeper in the woods), we retreat back to civilization, notebooks and memory cards full, ready for a snack.
Kort’s prepared some mushroom pate that we gobble up on fresh ciabatta bread from Gastown cafe Nelson the Seagull, and McNaughton passes around locally farmed concord grapes and fresh baby tomatoes, and pours pine tea for everyone. It tastes like Christmas.
Fall is the best time of year for mushroom foraging, but Swallow Tail offers berry and herb programs in the Spring and Summer, too. Three-hour tours start from $39.
Stacey McLachlan is a freelance writer with a totally useful publishing degree. She is a certified beekeeper, an amateur pie enthusiast, and the kind of person who spends a disproportionate amount of time looking at pictures of pigs on the Internet. If you’re feeling up to it, find her work in Vancouver, Western Living, BeatRoute, and Award.